Compassion fatigue has been heralded by some as the ‘unavoidable cause’ (Moeller, 1999: 2) of international reporting. Curious as to the validity of such argument, in this post I will be questioning whether the public’s familiarity with images of atrocity and humanitarian disasters has caused audiences to become emotionally numb to the content.
A few weeks previous, my brother and I were watching the ten o’clock news when he sighed “not again”. A clip from the ongoing Syrian conflict was shown no more than five seconds before he changed the channel. After witnessing his response, I questioned whether my brother’s actions were a result of compassion fatigue towards the media’s representation of humanitarian crises.
On the one hand, yes. His initial response being “not again” would suggest his “moral compulsion” (Cottle, 2009: 128) has become lethargic; inured by the constant circulation of the Syrian humanitarian crisis to the extent he would avoid exposure to such discourse.
Arguably, the reporting on the Syrian conflict could be categorised as ’emergency news’ (Chouliaraki, 2006) considering the numerous actors involved and the complex, catastrophic implications. Thus the western media condense and simplify the content into an episodic string of events. Therefore, the use of showing a young child, distressed and smeared in blood (as shown in the BBC news report) would be in order to evoke a sympathetic, or perhaps horrified, response – an example of how the media sensationalise coverage in hopes of maintaining audience interest. However, my brother’s reaction contradicts such argument and was instead “left exhausted and tired” (Hoijer, 2004: 529).
However, whilst my brother’s response aligns superficially with the notion of compassion fatigue, it is based on the premise that there is a universal, homogeneous response to the same content. Thus, this exposes the stark uniform simplicity of compassion fatigue or the lack of expansive research into its validity. It could be argued compassion has become the only emotion through which audience response to humanitarian disaster is registered; regard for other emotions such as anger, solidarity or despair are unnoticed.
However, such emotions can be considered natural responses to distressing scenes of humanitarian disaster. As stated by David Campbell, “there are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally diminished response named ‘compassion fatigue’”. Whilst compassion could be lacking in audience response, to argue an audience is emotionally numb is an oversimplification; thus exposing a limitation of the notion of compassion fatigue.
Despite compassion fatigue (in the context of humanitarian communication) being commonly characterised as a symptom of the constant bombardment of images of disaster and human suffering, the lack of empirical evidence and presumptuous nature towards audience reaction lends itself to further scrutiny.
The argument for the existence of compassion fatigue is reliant on the ability to measure an audience’s response. In the Oxford Dictionary, compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”. “Sympathetic pity”, like all emotions, does not have one form of outward expression. Therefore, is it possible to conclude that compassion has decreased?
Furthermore, the use of social media platforms, arguably one of more the convenient methods of communicating emotions, should make the disclosure of ones “sympathetic pity” more evident now than in previous decades. In December of 2016 the Twitter trend #savealeppo became a focal point for the online community to stand in solidarity with those trapped within the city of Aleppo. Whilst social media is an ideal platform for expressing compassion, what David Campbell (2014) would argue is an emotion that operates on an individual level, it can act as a catalyst for wider, community action. Therefore, if based on outward expression, it is difficult to agree that audience compassion has faulted towards a fatigued and tiresome response.
Overall, whilst it is possible to see how compassion fatigue is a manifestation of the constant onslaught of humanitarian disasters that is fed to us by western media, it fails to understand the complexity of human emotions. Using compassion fatigue as an umbrella term from other emotions (excluding compassion) distorts the true complexion of our concern for others. Whilst it should not be left redundant, it is a phrase that should be used with caution.
Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The spectatorship of suffering. London: SAGE Publications.
Cottle, S. (2009) Global crisis reporting journalism in the global age. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Höijer, B. (2004) ‘The discourse of global compassion: The audience and media reporting of human suffering’, Media, Culture & Society, 26(4), pp. 513–531.
Moeller, S. (1999) Compassion fatigue how the media sell disease, famine, war and death. London: Routledge.